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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Even if you think musicals are silly, improbable, sentimental, and fading, it's hard not to be carried away by a real Broadway moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby...

SIMON: Sound of an actress belting her heart out. But the moments that led there can be almost as dramatic. For instance: there's the audition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMASH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) (Singing) Somewhere...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Hey. Yeah, thanks. That's all we need.

SIMON: NBC's new drama plumbs the drama behind the curtain. It's called "Smash." The new series is the story of a Broadway musical from the first idea to auditions, to the casting couch, to rehearsals and of course, the big premiere. Theresa Rebeck is the creator and executive producer of "Smash." She's also a screenwriter, playwright and a Broadway veteran with a hit play "Seminar" that's now on Broadway. Ms. Rebeck, thanks for being with us.

THERESA REBECK: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: How do we explain the premise of the show? Backstage drama, "West Wing" for theater folks?

REBECK: Yeah, I think those are both accurate. It's a workplace drama. It's just that the workplace is a musical.

SIMON: The heart of the premise is all these different lives get thrown together in the interest in producing a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Realistically, a musical on Marilyn Monroe sound like a good idea to you?

REBECK: I'm a big fan of Victorian novels and I was thinking that it might be fun to try something like "The Three Musketeers," you know, something that could have great songs and action and feathers and sword fights and that it might be funny to watch contemporary people having contemporary arguments.

SIMON: That sounds great.

REBECK: Yeah, that does sound like fun. Maybe we'll get to do that in season three, if we last that long. But then the more we talked about it, the more I came to understand what a powerful figure she is. And at the time I decided I didn't know if I could write a great musical about Marilyn Monroe but I knew I would write a great television show about people trying to write a great musical about Marilyn Monroe, and that that truly is my task. And now I would say I could write a great musical about Marilyn Monroe, 'cause I've spent a year thinking about how to do it.

SIMON: Well, you do get a couple of songs in the first episode.

REBECK: Yeah, there is a lot more coming too.

SIMON: And this rivalry - forgive a couple of inosteo(ph) cliches - but between a real Broadway baby and a corn-fed wide-eyed girl from Iowa, who are both competing for the lead role. The blonde and the brunette. Let's listen to a duet they sing as they head into the callback auditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMASH")

MEGAN HILTY AND KATHARINE MCPHEE: (Singing) I'll just have to forget the hurt and pain before, forget what used to be. The past is on the cutting room floor. The future is here with me. Choose me...

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. My heart is racing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REBECK: Good song.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that - and I say this as a fan of Broadway - to some people, as I don't have to tell you, they would do anything to avoid a Broadway musical.

REBECK: What? What are you saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, it's a little bit...you know, it's like how many times have they tried to make a television series out of baseball, and the fact is millions of people like watching baseball. They just don't necessarily watching TV series about baseball.

REBECK: Well, probably the right series hasn't been made yet. You know, there's a lot of truisms that get told in televisionland. And, you know, everybody said you couldn't do a musical on television until "Glee" did it. You know, I've lived and worked in the theater my whole life and I know a lot of theater people and we're actually pretty interesting tribe. We're like curious and funny and passionate people. And I think that theater really is universal in a lot of ways and that certainly the yearning of the human spirit to go after a specific dream is something that we all feel. You know, whether it's your dream to be a star on Broadway or your dream to be a baseball player or your dream to write a novel and, you know, everybody's got something they dream about. And this is a show about people who have tossed caution to the wind and threaten to ruin their lives in pursuit of their specific dream, which is rather beautiful. You know, I think theater, especially musical theater, it opens your heart with joy at its best.

SIMON: I used the word sentimental in the introduction. Do you think of this show as sentimental?

REBECK: Not at all. I was going to take exception to that, Scott. I think that, you know what, TV can be sentimental; movies can be sentimental; novels can be sentimental. And, yes, can musicals be sentimental? Yes, they can. But I wouldn't brand the form as such. I think that it's really one of the great American art forms, you know. And, you know, there's extraordinary grace and joy to be found in the American musical, in the good ones.

SIMON: One of my favorite scenes is when the actor playing a lead songwriter, Christian Borle, is talking to his partner about why he doesn't want to work with the director, who's not the nice man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMASH")

CHRISTIAN BORLE: (as Tom) He would have had to have a complete personality change as well as a sex change for me to even consider him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Well...

BORLE: But don't well. Oh, don't even well. Well, well, what?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, he's really talented, Tom.

BORLE: You know what, a lot of people are talented. We are in an industry which is lousy with talent. Is it too much to ask for kindness too? Am I a crazy person because I still expect people to be if not lovely at least civil in this terrible business?

SIMON: And what is there that is so distinctive? Because, you know, you've written for television shows I gather - "NYPD Blue," which certainly was a big success and one of the incarnations of "Law and Order." What is there that is so distinctive and irreplaceable about writing for the stage, and especially Broadway?

REBECK: Well, I find it unimaginably beautiful to see language and humanity and lights and sound and all come together in this moment of storytelling, which is so potently, in relationship to the audience, the presence of the audience. And I do think that if the task of artists who create community - which I believe it is - then theater does it in such an immediate and electrifying way for me. And I like listening to lots of people laugh at once, at one of my jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REBECK: I do. I know. I like communal joy. I think that, in many ways, theater is a lesson in empathy, that when theater works at its best your heart is moved by the trials or joy of somebody acting a story out for you on the other side of the stage lights. And then sometimes I think, well, that's just, it's in my DNA. It's where I was born, you know.

SIMON: Actually, I was given to understand you were born in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REBECK: Yeah, I was. They don't know how I got there, seriously. When I said I wanted to be a playwright, I thought my mother was going to have a heart attack. I mean, it was a pretty unusual think to want in Cincinnati.

SIMON: Ms. Rebeck, thanks so much. Good luck to you.

REBECK: Thank you.

SIMON: Theresa Rebeck, creator and executive producer of "Smash" speaking from New York. And you can find a streaming link to the first episode of "Smash" on NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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